By RACHEL SWAN
The Gaslamp Killer
Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012
The Fox Theater
Better than: Listening to a genuinely subdued hip-hop show, if such a thing exists.
Steven Ellison, the experimental hip-hop producer better known as Flying Lotus, has carved out a small but mighty sphere of influence in his home town of Los Angeles. Among music critics he's revered as an artist with a capital "A" : descendent of a vaunted jazz dynasty, proper analogue for the late J Dilla, indefatigable weed smoker, omnivorous genre consumer, sometime Thom Yorke collaborator and relative of two people with the surname "Coltrane."
In short, he's one of the few auteurs in hip-hop who often gets called a standard-bearer, by people who really mean it.
Flying Lotus squired three of his acolytes to last night's show at the Fox Theater in Oakland, an undersold -- to the casual observer, at least -- but nonetheless dizzying affair. The two openers, a rapper named Jeremiah Jae and beatmaker named Teebs, seemed keen on emulating Flying Lotus' hazy, free-jazz style and bohemian persona. Jae describes himself as an "emcee, producer, visual artist, (and) healer," and lards his Tumblr with Egyptian artwork, which is about all you need to know about his character. That said, he's a capable emcee.
Supporting act The Gaslamp Killer, a laptop DJ with two EPs and an album to his name (the latter released about a month ago on Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder label), is the most noteworthy member of the stable, and a viable headliner in his own right. In contrast to Teebs' lilting Muzak, his set was harsh and metallic, and he spent a good deal of it bouncing violently around the stage.
That impressed at least one fan, who noted how effortless it looked -- if Girl Talk is a glorified club DJ, then Gaslamp Killer is a craftsman who knows his instrument so well, he can operate it with mere telepathy. "I mean, it's like, what the fuck, if you have a laptop -- do something," the fan said.
Even more impressive was an unexpected stump speech at the end of Gaslamp Killer's set. "These motherfuckin' pigs are fucking up our government so hard," the DJ said, addressing his audience with the severity of a school marm. "But Oakland stands so motherfuckin' hard," he added, mumbling something incomprehensible about Oakland's "spiritual element" while the audience cheered.
Flying Lotus started his set on a crescendo, with a series of deafeningly loud, uptempo songs that defied the more subdued aesthetic of his new album, Until the Quiet Comes (critics often describe it as "vaporous," an adjective that's overused, but aptly applied in this case). He stood high on the stage, a faint silhouette wedged between two video screens with light projections. The light show was spectacular -- all slinky shapes and tentacular arms and chilling, arterial things that popped into the air -- but Flying Lotus seemed comparatively ascetic, with a remarkably simple toolbox. It evidently consisted of a laptop and some type of sound-triggering device.
It's hard to understand the cult of fandom and adoration behind Flying Lotus if you only see him onstage. His live show is excruciatingly, floor-rumblingly loud, and the drums tend to blur out the more interesting details in his music -- Flying Lotus' albums include a lot of abstract chord patterns and richly quilted vocal samples that you won't hear in a large room. He's a crowd-pleaser, to boot, packing his set with familiar rap samples -- including Kendrick Lamar's "Swimming Pools" and a bass line plundered from Big Sean -- which, admittedly, were the most arresting parts of the show. He also threw in a bit of organ music for uh, Halloween.
But he's not incapable of occasional flights of fancy, even during a well-engineered performance. (So well-engineered, in fact, that the drum sounds often synched up with the light projections.) Toward the end, Flying Lotus devolved into a self-indulgent flight of fancy and the audience hung along with him -- one couple even slow-danced in the back.
"A lot of his music has symbology in it," said one fan, attempting to explain the appeal to a layman. "That's what a lot of people come here for -- the symbols."
That wasn't obvious to the untrained eye. But in light of the whole mythology surrounding Flying Lotus, it sounded credible.
Best overheard pickup line: "You look like a grownup version of April from The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I mean that as a compliment.